The Gruesome Dollhouse Death Scenes That Reinvented Murder Investigations

Who can resist minia­tures?

Wee food, painstak­ing­ly ren­dered in felt­ed wool

Match­book-sized books you can actu­al­ly read…

Clas­sic record albums shrunk down for mice…

The late Frances Gless­ner Lee (1878–1962) def­i­nite­ly loved minia­tures, and excelled at their cre­ation, knit­ting socks on pins, hand rolling real tobac­co into tiny cig­a­rettes, and mak­ing sure the vic­tims in her real­is­tic mur­der scene dio­ra­mas exhib­it­ed the prop­er degree of rig­or mor­tis and livid­i­ty.

Lee began work on her Nut­shell Stud­ies of Unex­plained Death at the age of 65, as part of a life­long inter­est in homi­cide inves­ti­ga­tion.

Her pre­oc­cu­pa­tion began with the Sher­lock Holmes sto­ries she read as a girl.

In the 1930s, the wealthy divorcee used part of a siz­able inher­i­tance to endow Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty with enough mon­ey for the cre­ation of its Depart­ment of Legal Med­i­cine.

Its first chair­man was her friend, George Burgess Magrath, a med­ical exam­in­er who had shared his dis­tress that crim­i­nals were lit­er­al­ly get­ting away with mur­der because coro­ners and police inves­ti­ga­tors lacked appro­pri­ate train­ing for foren­sic analy­sis.

The library to which Lee donat­ed a thou­sand books on the top­ic was named in his hon­or.

The home­made dio­ra­mas offered a more vivid expe­ri­ence than could be found in any book.

Each Nut­shell Study required almost half a year’s work, and cost about the same as a house would have at the time. ($6000 in the 1940s.)

“Luck­i­ly, I was born with a sil­ver spoon in my mouth,” Lee remarked. “It gives me the time and mon­ey to fol­low my hob­by of sci­en­tif­ic crime detec­tion.”

Although Lee had been brought up in a lux­u­ri­ous 13 bed­room home (8 were for ser­vants’ use), the domes­tic set­tings of the Nut­shell Stud­ies are more mod­est, reflec­tive of the vic­tims’ cir­cum­stances.

She drew inspi­ra­tion from actu­al crimes, but had no inter­est in repli­cat­ing their actu­al scenes. The crimes she authored for her lit­tle rooms were com­pos­ites of the ones she had stud­ied, with invent­ed vic­tims and in rooms dec­o­rat­ed accord­ing to her imag­i­na­tion.

Her intent was to pro­vide inves­ti­ga­tors with vir­gin crime scenes to metic­u­lous­ly exam­ine, culling indi­rect evi­dence from the painstak­ing­ly detailed props she was a stick­ler for get­ting right.

Stu­dents were pro­vid­ed with a flash­light, a mag­ni­fy­ing glass, and wit­ness state­ments. Her atten­tion to detail ensured that they would use the full nine­ty min­utes they had been allot­ted ana­lyz­ing the scene. Their goal was not to crack the case but to care­ful­ly doc­u­ment obser­va­tions on which a case could be built.

The flaw­less­ness of her 1:12 scale ren­der­ings also speaks to her deter­mi­na­tion to be tak­en seri­ous­ly in what was then an exclu­sive­ly male world. (Women now dom­i­nate the field of foren­sic sci­ence.)

Noth­ing was over­looked.

As she wrote to Dr. Alan Moritz, the Depart­ment of Legal Medicine’s sec­ond chair, in a let­ter review­ing pro­posed changes to some ear­ly scenes:

I found myself con­stant­ly tempt­ed to add more clues and details and am afraid I may get them “gad­gety” in the process. I hope you will watch over this and stop me when I go too far. Since you and I have per­pe­trat­ed these crimes our­selves we are in the unique posi­tion of being able to give com­plete descrip­tions of them even if there were no witnesses—very much in the man­ner of the nov­el­ist who is able to tell the inmost thoughts of his char­ac­ters.

It’s no acci­dent that many of the Nut­shell Stud­ies’ lit­tle corpses are female.

Lee did not want offi­cers to treat vic­tims dis­mis­sive­ly because of gen­der-relat­ed assump­tions, whether the sce­nario involved a pros­ti­tute whose throat has been cut, or a house­wife dead on the floor of her kitchen, the burn­ers of her stove all switched to the on posi­tion.

Would you like to test your pow­ers of obser­va­tion?

Above are the remains of Mag­gie Wil­son, dis­cov­ered in the Dark Bath­room’s tub by a fel­low board­er, Lizzie Miller, who gave the fol­low­ing state­ment:

I roomed in the same house as Mag­gie Wil­son, but knew her only from we met in the hall. I think she had ‘fits’ [seizures]. A cou­ple of male friends came to see her fair­ly reg­u­lar­ly. On Sun­day night, the men were there and there was a lot of drink­ing going on. Some time after the men left, I heard the water run­ning in the bath­room. I opened the door and found her as you see her.

Grim, eh?

Not near­ly as grim as what you’ll find in the Par­son­age or the Three-Room Dwelling belong­ing to shoe fac­to­ry fore­man Robert Jud­son, his wife, Kate, and their baby, Lin­da Mae.

The peri­od-accu­rate mini fur­nish­ings and fash­ions may cre­ate a false impres­sion that the Moth­er of Foren­sic Sci­ence’s Nut­shell Stud­ies should be rel­e­gat­ed to a muse­um.

In truth, their abun­dance of detail remains so effec­tive that the Office of the Chief Med­ical Exam­in­er in Bal­ti­more con­tin­ues to use 18 of them in train­ing sem­i­nars to help homi­cide inves­ti­ga­tors “con­vict the guilty, clear the inno­cent, and find the truth in a nut­shell.”

Explore 5 Nut­shell Studies—Woodman’s Shack, Attic, Liv­ing Room, Garage, and Par­son­age Parlor—in 360º com­pli­ments of The Smith­son­ian Amer­i­can Art Muse­um Ren­wick Gallery’s exhib­it Mur­der Is Her Hob­by: Frances Gless­ner Lee and The Nut­shell Stud­ies of Unex­plained Death.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

A Record Store Designed for Mice in Swe­den, Fea­tur­ing Albums by Mouse Davis, Destiny’s Cheese, Dol­ly Pars­ley & More

“20 Rules For Writ­ing Detec­tive Sto­ries” By S.S. Van Dine, One of T.S. Eliot’s Favorite Genre Authors (1928)

Lucy Law­less Joins Pret­ty Much Pop: A Cul­ture Pod­cast #5 on True Crime

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.